by Stephen Sachs
After opening the US Premiere of Athol Fugard’s new play The Blue Iris at the Fountain last Friday, I flew to New York on personal and professional business. As it turns out, Athol had just left New York on Sunday after directing the NY debut of his play The Train Driver at the Signature Theatre. Athol and I had just missed each other, our two east/west flights crossing each other as we switched coasts.
Monday, I was taking one of those New York City walks. You know the kind. A fast-paced trek on foot through the city. To sort the mind, ease the heart, sifting and sorting through mental debris. I traveled dozens of blocks, miles it seems. Pushing through crowds, I walked everywhere and nowhere. No destination, no ending point, thinking about everything and nothing.
Pushing east on 42nd Street, lost in thought, I crossed 10th Avenue, oblivious to where I was. I happened to glance up. And there was Athol Fugard, peering down at me. From a big poster advertising The Train Driver. Without knowing it or meaning to, I had stumbled upon the Signature Theatre. How did this happen?
Manhattan is two miles wide and thirteen miles long. How is it my rudderless course through a city containing twenty-three square miles led me to the doorstep where Athol’s play was now opening? What mysterious GPS had magically navigated me there? How could this possibly be? It was impossible to believe. And then —
My cell phone rang. I glanced at the name displayed as the caller. I was stunned. Of all people, guess who?
“Stephen!” cheered the familiar South African voice, calling from across the country in Los Angeles.
“Athol!” I shouted. “I can’t believe it’s you calling! You’ll never guess where I am right now. In New York! Standing outside the Signature Theatre at this very moment, staring at you and the Train Driver poster!”
Athol was delighted. I was astounded. What the hell is going on? Standing at the door of the Signature with Athol on the phone from the west coast, I felt like a note-bottle that had somehow miraculously washed up on shore at exactly the spot of shoreline where it needed to be to deliver the message inside. But the Signature lobby was empty, with only the box office gentleman telling me that the building was closed on Monday.
Athol made a quick phone call. The door opened. Soon I was inside. A surprise to everyone and completely unannounced. Jim Houghton, the Founder and Artistic Director, was there to meet me and I was given a tour of their glorious new 3-theatre complex that also includes a spacious lobby, bookstore, cafe, warrens of office cubicles, pristine rehearsal rooms and a maze of dressing rooms backstage.
Their production of The Train Driver (directed by Athol) was currently in previews on The Linney stage. Their set was similar in feel to ours at the Fountain last year, but much wider and included the rusted relic of a demolished old car in the corner. The Linney seats approximately 200 people and has a wonderful catwalk above that wraps around the entire space which can be used as an elevated acting area or for audience seating.
The magnificent new multi-million dollar venue for the Signature Theatre is big, glorious and state-of-the-art. Whenever I visit new theatres like these I envy the size, the pristine open space, the eye-popping technology and design. In addition to The Train Driver, the world premiere of Sam Shepard’s new play, Heartless was opening that night on the larger Diamond stage. A buzz of excitement in the building.
It was a pleasure meeting Jim Houghton as he shared his pride in the dazzling new building and his deep enthusiasm for Athol’s work and legacy as a playwright.
My visit done, I stepped back outside onto the bustling New York City street. After a quick glance of warm goodbye to Athol on the front poster outside, I ambled up 10th Avenue shaking my head in bemusement at my good fortune and grateful to the forces — seen and unseen — that guided my steps and brought me here.
Sometimes the uncharted course, the path without purpose, leads you exactly where you’re meant to be.
Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.